Why Grow Tomatoes in Containers?

This is the first year that I am growing the majority of my tomatoes in containers, and wow, are they doing well! I decided to go with containers because I’m using my raised beds for a cutting garden, and I’ve found that growing tomatoes in my regular garden beds results in slow growth and late-season diseases. I planted one tomato in the ground and it is definitely lagging behind the guys in the containers.

Why grow tomatoes in containers? A few reasons:

An 18-inch container may be a little tight, but most tomatoes do well in 18- to 24-inch containers.

1. You control the soil. For my container tomatoes, I used large containers and a high-quality potting mix.  The mix has most of what the tomatoes need in terms of nutrients and I will add some bone meal or liquid fish emulsion as the tomatoes produce fruit to keep the calcium and fertility levels up.  The potting soil also lacks all the soil-borne diseases that tend to hang out in the ground—that’s a good thing!

2. Decent drainage. We’ve had a pretty wet early summer in Minnesota. (We had a solid 3 inches in the past week and many areas of Minnesota had much more.) Unlike the ground, which can get water-logged, containers drain well. (I’m considering adding pot feet to my containers to ensure even better drainage.) They have holes in the bottom so excess moisture moves away from the roots, preventing root rot. One disadvantage of container tomatoes is that in dry spells you have to stay on top of watering. Tomatoes need consistent—but not excessive—moisture throughout the growing season to perform best and avoid blossom end rot.

3. Air circulation, easily. Every time I plant tomatoes in the ground, I end up putting them too close together. They look so little when they go in the garden and it’s hard to imagine how big they will get — and how entwined in each other.  With tomatoes in pots, I can move the pots if they get bigger than expected and start encroaching on their neighbors. Air circulation is another important factor in the health of tomatoes.

4. Easy to cage. The pots I chose for my tomatoes are all 18 inches in diameter. For really large tomatoes, you could go even bigger, but the 18-inch pots are a perfect fit for the standard size tomato cage, which I put on the tomatoes a few days after planting. Don’t wait to cage your tomatoes.

Green tomatoes already on some of the plants!

5) Easy to pick. Container tomatoes are elevated by the height of the pot so it’s easy to see when fruit is ripe. The elevation also makes it harder for rabbits and voles (though unfortunately, not squirrels) to get at the tomatoes. For squirrels — a bit more engineering may be necessary.

Many of the usual instructions for growing tomatoes apply to container tomatoes — place them in a very sunny spot, plant them deeply in the container to allow roots to form, and pinch extraneous foliage to keep the plant focused on producing fruit. Generally, determinate tomatoes are recommended for container growing, though I’m growing several types of heirloom tomatoes and I think most of them are indeterminate.

I will report how things go as the season progresses! Do you grow tomatoes in containers?

 

 

Gardening for Pollinators in a Big Way

This summer I’ll be planting a small pollinator garden on our boulevard.  It’s the start of what I hope will be a bigger garden along my hellstrip—the 55-by-7 foot stretch of our property between the sidewalk and the street.  Start small, and grow it from there is a good motto in the garden. Still, seeing a big, private garden with a focus on pollinators is inspiring.

wildflowers in a field
From the driveway, the yard was a sea of wildflowers.

During the recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, TX, we visited the garden of Ruthie Burrus. The property includes a magical stone garden house and a killer view of downtown Austin, but it was the long, hilly driveway flanked by native plants that blew me away. The field was buzzing with bees, moths and butterflies, and I’m sure, dozens of pollinators I could not identify. The sheer expanse of the garden was impressive.

closeup of Mexican hat flower
Mexican hat (Ratibida columnaris)

Native plants filled the space, including blanket flower, beebalm, Mexican hat, winecup and Texas lantana. I couldn’t identify all the butterflies and bees feeding along the hill but I recognized monarchs and painted ladies.

purple wine cup flower
Winecup (Callirhoë involucrata)

At the top of the hill, near the house, Ruthie uses more pollinator-friendly plants, including ‘Black and Blue’ salvia around this blue agave, and a hedge of a native salvia along one edge of the property. The back yard is much smaller than the front and includes a beautiful pool and patio area along with that stunning view.

agave cactus surrounded by salvia
‘Black and Blue’ salvia surround a blue agave
hedge with purple flowers
I have to admit I experienced more than a little zone envy when I saw this hedge of salvia.

I left the garden feeling even more inspired to plant my own pollinator field.

stone garden house
This adorable garden house is going to be covered with roses, Ruthie told us.
view of downtown austin texas
The view from Ruthie’s back patio is of the skyline of downtown Austin

Thanks to the Texas Highway Department’s helpful website for assisting me with identifying some of the plants in Ruthie’s garden.

Garden Your Garage

I’ve written before about the garden challenges of garage-forward homes—sometimes called “snout houses.” While it’s not usually possible to disguise that big ‘ole garage sitting in front of your house, I think there are many opportunities to make garages less …. ugly.

The main view of the garage from the sidewalk. (Excuse my shadowing photos, the light in Texas is bright!)

That’s why I fell hard for Pam Penick’s garage garden during the recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, Texas. Pam’s ranch-style home was built in the 1970s and she has one garage advantage over many homeowners—while the garage is a prominent element on the front of her house, it’s a sideways snout, meaning the garage doors face a courtyard/driveway rather than the street. Still, the garage is a big part of the front face of her house, and she’s used plants, seating, artwork and a lot of creative energy to make it as beautiful and inviting as the rest of her landscape. Pam’s yard has no grass, which makes sense given Texas’ climate where gardeners go weeks without rain only to have a gully-washer one day. (We garden bloggers experienced one heck of a gullywasher during our visit to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center!)

What’s so great about this garage—it’s a garden!

The portion of the garage facing the street has windows, which makes it look like part of the house, and it is surrounded by plants.  A path runs along the back of the garage, leading to a gate and Pam’s charming and oh-so comfortable backyard. She’s planted several trees to provide shade and in a niche between the trees, she’s placed a bench.

Behind the bench, you see two of four framed mirrors with matching panes that add light and decoration to the house. This gives the effect of a gallery and creates a ton of interest on what could have been a long, blank wall of stone. Throughout the garden, she has low, green plantings, softening the brick.

garage wall with mirrors
The back of the garage was a play of dark and light during my morning visit to the garden.

The side yard ends with this rustic gate, inviting visitors into the backyard.

On the driveway side of the garage, Pam added pots and a whimsical wall decoration.  The doors face a large planting area, giving visitors more sights to see than the garage. It’s a masterful piece of distraction.

 

front of pretty Texas garage
Well, what the heck, this actually is a garage.
budha and succulents decorating a garage
This small planting is attached to one side of the garage.

What are your favorite strategies for landscaping around your snout house?

Texture in the Garden: Texas Style

Seeing a lot of gardens in a few days or even on a one-day tour really highlights the importance of certain design elements. During a recent Garden Bloggers Fling in Austin, Texas, I saw texture everywhere. From smooth, hard metals to spiky plants to rivulets of rock or rustic bark, texture evoked a sense of place and style. It gave all of these stunning gardens contrast and made them more interesting to explore.

Here are a few of my favorite textural elements in Texas:

Lady Bird Johnson wildflower center

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center outside of Austin is filled with texture both in plants and the hard surfaces. The limestone on the arched wall is native to Texas and used in many homes and public spaces. It’s softened by the trees and vines growing around it, and its colors are varied. Wouldn’t you love to sit on that bench and contemplate the stone and the garden? If you are ever near Austin, the wildflower center is a must-see.

contemporary garden with corten planter

This contemporary garden used weathering steel (most commonly referred to as Cor-ten) for many of its walls and planters. The contrast between the soft ground covers and grasses, the sharp leaves of the yucca and the hard, rust-color of the steel, which doesn’t shine at all, is striking.  Corten gives a sophisticated, industrial look to both large gardens, like this one, or smaller ones, like this Minneapolis potager, which bloggers toured in 2016.

textured stone wall at Zilker Botanical garden

During a visit to the Zilker Botanical Gardens’ unique Hartman Prehistoric Garden, I spotted this large, deeply cut piece of stone in a wall. The prehistoric garden was created after amateur paleontologists discovered more than 100 dinosaur tracks on the grounds of the botanical gardens. The tracks were preserved and a garden with Cretaceus plants was developed, complete with a dinosaur sculpture that is popular with children. According to the Zilker website, plants in the garden represent those that existed 100 million years ago, including ferns, horsetails, conifers, ginkos and some of the first magnolias and palms. I’m not sure how old this rock is, but its fascinating texture indicates it has experienced plenty.

colorful orbs in texas garden

With so much tan rock and green plants, many of the Texas gardens we saw added color with accessories. But accessories can also add texture. These smooth, shiny, bright blue orbs catch the eye, giving visitors a reason to slow down and notice the rest of this lovely front garden bed in the garden of Austin blogger Pam Penick. The soft texture of the lamb’s ears and ground cover contrasts with both the orbs and that big, pointy agave.

wooden fish swimming through grass

Not all of these Texas textural elements would look appropriate in northern gardens but we have plenty of our own iconic textures, including the smooth stones so common around Lake Superior and the textures of the prairies that covered about a third of Minnesota at one time. That’s one reason I loved these fish swimming through a sea of soft grass at the beautiful garden of blogger, Jenny Stocker.  A native of England, Jenny has created a garden filled with smart details and varied plants in a series of garden rooms. It was a highlight of the tour, especially when Jenny showed us this recently hatched preying mantis.

preying mantis just hatched and nest
Jenny found this preying mantis nest on a branch and one of the babies posed nicely for all the bloggers’ cameras.

What kinds of textures are you incorporating in your garden this year?

 

Will the Redbuds Bloom?

eastern redbud in bloom
A multi-stemmed redbud adds color to a gloomy spring landscape. This photo was takne May 22, 2013.

Almost every landscaper and garden designer I know loves the Minnesota-strain redbud tree (Cercis canadensis), and with good reason. These  gorgeous spring-flowering trees seem to have a halo of pink blooms when they are in flower, which is typically mid-May. They hold onto the blooms for nearly three weeks, about twice the time of many other spring-flowering trees. They can be grown on a single stem or multiple stems and develop a horizontal shape on top that is striking in the landscape.

With our long winter, I wondered: will the redbuds bloom in 2018? The last time redbuds did not consistently bloom was in 2013-2014, which was a tough winter—long, snowy, with persistent cold temperatures. This winter has certainly been long, but not necessarily extremely cold in the parts of the state where redbuds are grown. (All bets are off for those folks places like Embarrass and International Falls, MN, where temps hit the -40s F a few times in 2017-2018.) According to the National Weather Service records, the lowest-low in Minneapolis all winter was -16 on New Year’s Eve. That’s not that low, which makes me hopeful that the redbuds will bloom, no matter how much snow and cold weather we had in April.

buds of redbud tree
Will redbuds bloom this year? It looks like this one wants to.

And, that’s good news. The Minnesota-strain redbud is a pretty plant with an interesting story. Redbuds, which are native to places like Illinois and southern Wisconsin but not Minnesota, were planted back in the 1950s at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. To the surprise of the arb researchers, some of the trees survived and the seed from those trees was planted to create the Minnesota-strain. You can find redbuds in almost any nursery in the southern half of the state now.

When we moved to our new house in 2016, one of the first trees we planted was a redbud. I’m hoping this one (photo of bud, above left) and all the other redbuds bloom in the next few weeks.

 

Delayed Spring? Pros and Cons for Northern Gardeners

With about 4 inches of snow on the ground already from our current storm and another 2 to 4 predicted during the day, it seems a good time to consider the pros and cons of a delayed spring.

For those not from Minnesota, since the beginning of 2018, we have had two days (yes, just two) with a high temperature of 50 degrees or higher in the Twin Cities. Both of those days were in March—and neither of them topped 55. Currently, we are in a broken record of 30-degree days with nights in the 20s interrupted only by intermittent snowstorms. Some weather forecasters have said this will last into mid-April. Others say we get a break next week.  (I hope these guys are right.)  So what happens in the garden when spring takes forever to arrive?

A couple of pros of a delayed spring come immediately to mind:

Less chance of freeze damaging fruit crops. Back in 2012, we had an extremely early spring, with my cherry tree (and lots of apple trees) blooming in early April—about four weeks ahead of usual. When the inevitable frost came, many fruit crops were severely damaged. That won’t happen this year.

Adequate soil moisture. This year, Minnesota has had an average amount of snow or a bit higher. Since there has been some thawing of the ground, these late season snows should give us decent soil moisture going into the planting season.

I’m sure there are some other benefits to a slow spring, but there are plenty of cons, too.

In 2015, crocus were blooming in my yard on March 31. In 2016, they were blooming on March 15. This year, nothing but snow so far.

When things bloom, it will be a bloom explosion! When spring comes on gently and slowly as it did last year, blooms emerge gradually in a steady parade of color from the yellows of forsythia to creamy magnolias, pink rhododendrons, redbuds, fruit trees and lilacs. Bulbs do the same.  In the best of years, this unfolding of color can start in late March. A delayed spring means everything rushes to bloom at once—boom. It’s marvelous when it happens, but wow, it doesn’t last long. And, for people with allergies, all that blooming means lots of types of pollen all at once. On the upside, the pollen count in my neighborhood today is zero!

A pansy pile up at the local garden centers! I visited a couple of garden centers during a slightly warm day 10 days ago, and the pansy bowls were piled up in the greenhouses. While pansies can tolerate temps down to 26, it’s best not to put them outdoors fulltime until nighttime temperatures are reliably in the 40s. So, hold off for at least a week. After that, rush to your local garden center, because you will be starved for color!

I wrote a profile of this DIY greenhouse for the November/December 2017 issue of Northern Gardener. This would be a great year to have a greenhouse!

A slow start in the vegetable garden. This would be a great year to have a greenhouse, because it’s going to be awhile before the soil temperature is warm enough to plant even cool-season crops such as lettuce and peas.  Seeds for vegetables such as radishes and lettuce will germinate at soil temperatures as low as 40 degrees, but it takes a lot longer to germinate at 40 than it does at 50 or 60 degrees. So, fire up those indoor light systems and give your vegetables a head start inside. Just for perspective, the soil temperature in my raised beds right now is 35 degrees. We’ve got a way to go.

Hungry birds. I haven’t seen any robins yet though they could be around, but I have definitely noticed more birdsong in the morning. If you garden for birds, keep the feeders full and put out some water for them. It will be awhile before they can nibble on insects in the garden.

Speaking of insects, a long winter is unlikely to affect populations of Japanese beetles, emerald ash borers and other insects gardeners consider pests. Bummer.

Enjoy the snow day!

 

 

 

 

A Visit to Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota

Bromeliads in a display case Marie Selby garden
What a great way to display bromeliads — in the world’s largest IKEA bookcase.

Like a lot of northerners, I like a winter escape—preferably to Florida. While it’s not always possible to get away, the past couple of winters my husband and I have taken a break from the snow, ice and potholes in St. Paul to spend some time in Sarasota, Florida. Whenever we are here, we visit the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

View of Sarasota Bay from Selby Gardens
No matter where you go in the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota Bay is within view.

These gardens celebrate all things Florida, with lots of native plants, palms and brightly colored annuals, all arrayed along the shores of Sarasota Bay. Viewing the gardens with sailboats and water behind them is a good part of the fun. The gardens began as the estate of William and Marie Selby, who were among the residents flocking to Sarasota in the 1920s. Marie was the first woman to cross country by car! She loved Sarasota and she and William (a co-owner of the Selby Oil Co.) built a Spanish-style home and expansive gardens along the bay. When Marie died in 1971, she asked that the property become a botanic garden. The garden opened in 1975 and specializes in epiphytes, organisms that live on the surface of other plants.

Orchid at Marie Selby Gardens
Orchids were in bloom throughout the conservatory at the Marie Selby Gardens.

The gardens include a conservatory, with a huge collection of bromeliads and orchids, lots of mangroves, ferns and, of course, epiphytes as well as a huge banyan tree with a climbing structure nearby that is perfect for children (and adults) to climb on. Annual flowers are on display around the gardens and there is ample seating and winding paths to make the visit relaxing. The docent-led tours are informative and give visitors great context for visiting the garden.

Many years, the garden hosts an exhibition of a well-known artist’s work that is connected to gardening. This year, the exhibit is Andy Warhol: Flowers in the Factory and focuses on nature as an inspiration in the work of many pop artists. Warhol-inspired works are displayed around the garden and the exhibit gives viewers a compact history of Warhol and his compatriots. A highlight for me was the exhibit of several prints called Flowers, which Warhol created in 1964. To make the prints, he started with a photograph he saw in Modern Photography magazine (taken by someone else). He stripped out the detail and colors from the photo, then added more back, creating a fascinating series of floral prints. Shades of Instagram!

The photographer who took the original photo, Patricia Caulfield, later sued Warhol for copyright infringement. The interesting thing is, Warhol built his career  on changing other iconic images, such as the Campbell Soup can and Marilyn Monroe.

If you are near Sarasota, the Marie Selby Botanic Gardens are well worth a visit.  Take the docent-led tour and stop by the cafe for a light lunch or a cup of coffee. It will make for a lovely day in a city that is rapidly becoming my favorite Florida getaway.

Yours truly enjoying the gardens. I agree completely with Warhol on the beauty of our land.